The fill level on the bottle of Sonoma Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Alexander’s Crown 1975 was perfect, just at the bottom of the neck. I was a little worried when I put the point of the corkscrew into the top of the cork. It went in too easily. There were also two cracks in the cork that would have exposed the wine to too much air if they cut all the way through. The cork also slipped out a bit too easily, raising the possibility that the seal had not been perfect.
The first taste out of the bottle was disappointing. Flavors seemed thin and the tannins gritty. But after a few minutes in the glass, the texture softened and the flavors filled in the gaps, producing a plusher, more velvety texture. This is the way it often plays out with older bottles. They take a few minutes to sort out the long chains of chemical changes that have occurred in the intervening years since they were bottled.
After about 15 minutes, the wine came into its own. Aromatically, it emitted wafts of toasted walnut, roasted tomato and burnt rosemary around steady currant and red berry fruit, still lingering under the complex bouquet. In the mouth, it presented a veil of pepper and dried herbs around the lithe, refined core of fruit. It all lingered gently on the finish, balanced nicely with mouthwatering acidity. I gave it 92 points, non-blind, for its elegance over power.
This was old-fashioned California Cabernet, and it came from a vintage that was controversial in its day. I had kept a couple of bottles of this wine precisely because a minority of us thought the tight, almost tart structure was going to age well, even if it was not as immediately pleasing as its plush, generous predecessor. The 1974s were ripe and round, immediately likable.
After them, many of the taut 1975s struck a lot of us as unforgiving and unlikely ever to be worth drinking. Truth to tell, a lot of them were just that. But the ones with some density to the flavors and a true sense of elegance looked like they would do it. Alexander’s Crown was one of those.
The “Crown” is a small hill in Alexander Valley, not far from the current Jordan estate. It currently covers 66 acres, almost all of it Cabernet Sauvignon. When Sonoma Vineyards morphed into Rodney Strong Vineyards (named after the winery’s founder), the bottling continued under that label, and continues to this day.
Historically, it’s significant because it was one of the early single-vineyard Cabernets bottled in Sonoma County. Over in Napa Valley, Heitz had been producing a separate Martha’s Vineyard bottling since the 1960s. Chateau St. Jean was getting recognition for its single-vineyard Chardonnays and late-harvest Rieslings around that time, but not Cabernets.
It’s also significant because of what it tells us about the evolution of California Cabernet. In several respects the 1975 vintage is the odd man out for this vineyard. The 1974, 1976 and 1978 were big, ripe wines, fleshy and forward in a style that pointed ahead to the broad-beamed, immediately pleasing Cabernets that became the norm in California starting in the 1990s.
I remember opening 1974 and 1976 Crowns a couple of decades ago. They were already fading. As this 1975 shows, the leaner structure has held on longer. Thirty-five years on, it has elegance, refinement and provides plenty of pleasure.
The tradeoff is that it took a long time to get there. Few wineries in California make Cabernet in this style any more, because it simply does not sell well. Frankly, this flavor profile, with all the earthy, singed herbs and tobacco character, will not appeal to most wine drinkers, who prefer ripe fruit flavors with overtones of oak and chocolate.
I drink both styles, as long as they don’t go to extremes, but I recognize that leaner, less opulent wines like the 1975 Crown are much more difficult to make well. My cellar is littered with the dead bodies of so many crisp, tight wines that I thought would age as well as this has. On the other hand, when they’re right, the results are wonderful. It all depends on whether you’re willing to roll the dice.
Steve Kirchner — huntington beach, ca — February 10, 2010 3:30pm ET
Scott Elder — The Dalles, OR — February 10, 2010 5:15pm ET
Michael Bonanno — CT — February 11, 2010 4:11am ET
James J Sherma — hershey, PA — February 11, 2010 11:15am ET
Rich Meier — Reno,NV. Washoe — February 11, 2010 12:58pm ET
Anthony Dixon — Atlanta, GA — February 12, 2010 10:06am ET
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